A self-proclaimed messiah who befriended North Korean leaders and US presidents as his Unification Church became a worldwide religious movement has died.
The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, 92, died in hospital near his home in Gapyeong, north-east of Seoul, last night after being hospitalised with pneumonia.
Moon, who was jailed for spying and tax evasion, founded his religious movement in Seoul in 1954, after surviving the Korean War, and preached conservative, family-oriented values while advocating a multicultural religious world.
The church gained infamy in the 1970s and 1980s for holding mass weddings of thousands of followers, known as Moonies, and was accused of duping followers out of money and brainwashing children. Despite this, its popularity grew so much that its business empire included the Washington Times newspaper, hotels in the US and North Korea, a ski resort and a professional soccer team in South Korea, and a seafood distribution business.
Born in what is today North Korea, Moon said he was 16 when Jesus called on him to complete his unfinished work.
The mass "blessing ceremonies" started in the 1960s and grew in scale over the next two decades, with a 1982 wedding at Madison Square Garden in New York – the first outside South Korea – drawing thousands of participants.
In 2009 Moon married 45,000 people in simultaneous ceremonies worldwide.
In his autobiography the same year he said: "People should marry across national and cultural boundaries with people from countries they consider to be their enemies so that the world of peace can come that much more quickly."
Moon was jailed in North Korea in the late 1940s for allegedly spying for South Korea – a charge he disputed, but he rebuilt his relationship with North Korea in 1991 when he met the country's founder, Kim Il Sung.
He said of Kim: "The two of us were able to communicate well about our shared hobbies of hunting and fishing. At one point, we each felt we had so much to say to the other that we just started talking like old friends meeting after a long separation."
He claimed that Kim told his son, Kim Jong Il: "After I die, if there are things to discuss pertaining to North-South relations, you must always seek the advice of President Moon."
Moon also cultivated relationships with conservative American leaders, including former Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
He blamed his growing influence on America culture as the reason for his 13 months at a US federal prison in 1984-85 for tax evasion, and as he grew older he handed day-to-day control of his religious and business empire – ranging from hospitals and universities to a ballet troupe – to his children.
The church claims millions of members worldwide, although church defectors and other critics say the figure is no more than 100,000.
Moon is survived by his second wife and 10 children.